Ranking the “Top Ten” Popes


January 10, 2012

Ten Popes Who Shook the World
by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 136 pages, $25


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Eamon Duffy is an eminent scholar of the English Reformation and Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University. In a succinct volume, Ten Popes Who Shook  the World, he explains how each of these popes met the challenges posed by the historical circumstances, pastoral problems and theological issues of their day. He shows how they have defined the papacy and changed the world.

Chronologically, John Paul II (1978-2005) is the last world-shaking Pope that Duffy discusses. Duffy sees in John Paul II the summation of the nine other popes mentioned in his book. As Duffy says, “He was the greatest man to occupy the Chair of Peter for centuries, and one of the greatest ever. His personal history recapitulated the tormented history of the twentieth century, and he brought to bear on that history an unfailingly honest vision and indomitable courage.” Yet, this mega-pope does not escape criticism.

John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unam sint (May they be one,1995) places the papal office in its historical role of service to all Christians. It is an invitation to other churches to use the papacy as a resource for both orthodoxy and unity. The preeminence of the Roman See, Duffy explains, is based on the authority of the apostles Peter and Paul who preached and were martyred in Rome (circa 67 AD). He says that the general acceptance of Rome’s primacy was solidified by Pope Leo the Great’s (440-61) theology about the history of Rome “as the center for God’s plan of salvation…” and Leo’s assertion that “each Pope was the heir of Peter.” Leo’s tome approving the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) which defined the Hypostatic Union (the human and divine natures the person of Jesus) is considered by Duffy proof of Rome’s importance to the Universal Church.

No doubt, influenced by the Roman state’s hegemony over the Mediterranean world, the bishops of Rome, not unlike the emperors, sought to extend their influence beyond their local Church. And, while other bishops recognized the importance of the Roman See, the centralization of the power was not, and to this day is not always welcome. The resistance of the Orthodox Churches of the East is indicative of this discrepancy in understanding of how the pope’s universal jurisdiction is to be exercised.

When the Roman Empire began to crumble, a vacuum was created in the civil administration. Gregory the Great (590-604) stepped into the breach and began to exercise secular authority. Duffy explains, he “was educated for power and service.” His administrative concerns stretched from Spain to Africa, Greece and the Balkans. His letters show him organizing corn supplies from Sicily to feed the famine stricken people of central Italy. Gregory’s treatise On Pastoral Care was a textbook for all in authority, secular as well as sacred. This papal outreach promoted worldwide evangelization and, at least in embryo, made the Church the greatest charitable organization in the world.

The independence of the Papacy from state control was clearly established during the reign of Gregory VII (1073-85) who stated in his Dictates papae, “that the Roman pontiff  alone can depose and reinstate bishops” and “that of the Pope alone all princes shall kiss his feet.” This confirmed the pope’s role as an independent power broker on the world-stage. The pope now embodied both a secular and spiritual authority which asserted the Church’s independence and prerogatives. Hence, the importance of Vatican City and its rule by the pope as Head of State, as well as the Vatican’s ongoing battle with China regarding the appointment of bishops.

Innocent III’s (1198-1216) call for the Crusades to free hostages and the Holy Land from the Muslims is an example of the Papacy’s temporal role in protecting Christians. Also, his concern for the spiritual well-being of Christ’s flock was demonstrated by his acceptance of the special charisms of St. Dominic and St. Francis and the communities which they founded. John Paul II’s support of new religious groups, such as Opus Dei, to fit contemporary needs follows Innocent’s example. John Paul’s fight against Communism and his devotion to religious freedom also find their roots here.

In order to counter the Protestant Reformation and clarify Catholic doctrine, Paul III (1534-49) called the Council of Trent. Later, Pius IX’s (1846-78) demand that Vatican Council I (1870) recognize Papal Infallibility further aggrandized the pope’s control over Catholicism. Duffy thinks that these popes caused a freeze in the theological and pastoral development of the Church.  He believes that Vatican II and the papacy of John XXIII (1958-63) removed the theological straight-jacket imposed by the aforementioned Councils. However, he says, John Paul II replaced the straight jacket by reestablishing “an assertive papacy at the heart of Catholicism… [which] divided his Church, as he divided the secular world.” One can only presume that Duffy sees Benedict XVI in the same light.

The role of the Papacy as the world’s moral watchman has grown during the two millennia of Christianity.  Duffy artfully discusses the controversial moral lapse in this role during the reign of Pius XII (1939-58) over the Pope’s silence on the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. He clearly states that Pius was not an anti-Semite. Nonetheless, he believes that Pius could have and should have done more, but that he was limited by his personality and diplomatic training. No doubt, John Paul II was determined not to repeat these mistake–hence his gestures of friendship toward the Jewish people, and his please for justice and the recognition of the dignity of the human person.

Duffy shows us that the Papacy is bigger than any one man. In the ten popes he has chosen, he has elucidate the history of the papacy and the development of its service to the Church and the world. He demonstrates that the Office of the Pope has a universal mission to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The 262 men who have filled the ‘shoes of the fisherman’ proclaimed the Gospel, just as Peter did, using their personal strengths and despite their shortcomings.

Duffy has given us an interesting sketch of the Papal office and ten men who have left a lasting mark on it. The book’s brevity and the author’s problems with some aspects of how Papal authority is exercised demand further study on the part of the reader.


  • Rev. Michael P. Orsi

    Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976. He has authored or co-authored four books and over 320 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida.

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